Editor’s Note: Longtime Herald Democrat outdoors writer Lynn Burkhead continues his yearly tradition today of penning a fictitious outdoors story as a Christmas gift to readers.
As the sun crept over the eastern horizon, all was calm and all was bright, a good thing for a treasured Christmas carol perhaps, but not for a mid-December duck hunt at the bottom end of the Central Flyway.
As the whirring noise of the Mojo spinning wing decoys made their soft swishing sounds out in the middle of the spread, the morning had been a dud so far, at least as father and son pre-holiday hunts go.
But the day’s bag limit wasn’t the topic weighing heavily on the mind of Jake Thomas or his son Sam, down from Oklahoma City to the family’s Montague County ranch for Christmas Day festivities and a little hunting too.
“You scared, Dad?” queried Sam, asking a pointed question he hadn’t had the courage to ask until this morning sit in the Avian-X A-Frame blind brushed in only an hour earlier at the edge of the five-acre tank that sat only a half-mile from the Red River.
“Me? Scared? Nah,” said Jake, a graying grandfather who had relocated with his wife Kathleen to the 750-acre family spread a few years after his retirement from a publishing firm in Dallas. A few registered Longhorns on the spread, some surprisingly big deer, a fair number of Rio Grande gobblers, and even a few coveys of bobwhite quail kept the older Thomas busy as the years sped by.
Scott, a high school football coach and offensive coordinator up in the City, bit his lip and let the silence permeate their surroundings, broken up only by the sudden wheezing sounds of an inbound mallard drake seeking a little company.
A few soft licks on the duck calls draped around the two men’s necks, one an American walnut Yentzen Classic that Jake had carried for years, the other a newer Yentzen One2 call that Scott used, apparently sounded the siren song for the greenhead.
A moment after the shot from Jake’s worn over-and-under, the drake lay belly up in the spread, giving one final kick of his red legs as Charlie the Yellow Lab swam dutifully out into the muddy water to make the day’s first retrieve.
“Thanks for letting me take the shot,” said Jake. “If my guess is right, that bird got separated from another flock pushing south in front of the blue norther that’s supposed to hit later on this morning. Wouldn’t know it now though - bright skies, no wind, and shirt-sleeve hunting weather. Not exactly a good recipe for a duck hunt.”
“Nope, it sure isn’t,” agreed Scott. “But like you’ve always taught me, you can’t see the show unless you buy a front row ticket. That’s one thing I’ve always loved about you dad, your faith and optimism.”
As Charlie climbed back into the blind and shook off a gallon of muddy pond water, Scott reached over and accepted the duck. He had to admit - silently, of course - that one mallard drake looked awfully lonely on a big leather duck strap.
“Well, who knows, maybe we’ll get a few more,” said the 30-something son.
“Sure hope so,” said the 60-something father. “I’m eager to try out that Traeger grill/smoker thing you kids got me and mom for Christmas. Whoever heard of smoking meat with wood pellets? In Texas, at least?”
“You’ll have to trust me on that,” grinned Scott. “It will change the way you barbecue for sure. In fact, I asked mom to pick up a good brisket and some ribs when she, Ellie, and the kids go into town later today.”
For awhile, there was little sound to disrupt the still December morning. In fact, only the high clouds streaming overhead gave any evidence of an impending change.
“The weather guys say this is a pretty potent blue norther,” said Sam, trying to break the silence again. “Said it’ll be one of those classic fronts, sunny one minute, cloudy the next, and a stiff northerly wind that causes the temperature to drop like a rock.”
“Maybe,” smiled Jake with a shrug. “But aren’t those the same guys who thought it was going to snow a foot up in the City a couple of weeks ago? As I recall, there were a few flurries, but not much more. But yeah, it sounds like a good old fashioned front for sure.”
As the conversation in the blind returned to nothing, there was suddenly a whisper of wings in the air above as Charlie tensed, whined, and shot his canine eyes skyward.
“Dad, pintails!,” Scott hissed, reaching for his Rascal whistle call.
“I see them son, give that thing a few peeps and let’s see what might happen.”
As Scott made the whistling noise peculiar to pintails, the five birds — three hens and two bull sprig drakes — ignored their usual caution, turned at the end of the small lake, cupped their wings, and rocked steadily all the way to Scott’s cry of “Take ‘em Dad!”
As Charlie returned with the last of the two drakes the father-and-son had dropped, the sky was suddenly alive with duck traffic as whistling wings whispered their age old song on a wind that was shifting - and building - from the north.
For the next hour, as the front pushed through and dropped temperatures into the mid-30s, there was steady action as flocks of greenheads, gadwalls, and a few wigeon gave the decoy spread a closer look.
Shot by shot, the two men built their way towards a limit, something that didn’t seem possible when the morning began. But when a big mallard drake fell into the white capping water, the two men were only one bird shy of limiting out.
As they sat there and hoped for one final bird, Jake broke the silence and whispered, “Yeah son, I’m scared.”
For a few moments, neither father or son said another word. But finally, Scott cleared his throat, and uttered some words that he had been pondering since the diagnosis and treatment options were discussed weeks ago.
“I know dad, I’m scared too. But they said they caught it early, that the treatment options have a great chance of working, and that you’re strong and healthy. You’re going to beat this, I know you will.”
“Maybe,” said Jake, his eyes moistening. “But what if…what if I don’t? I’m not ready to leave your mom, you, Ellie, and the grandkids behind. But I guess that’s not my choice to make, now is it? I guess my faith isn’t terribly strong right now.”
“I know dad, I know,” Scott said back in a hoarse whisper. “Our family has been through a lot in recent years. Your heart surgery, mom’s cancer, now yours, Uncle George passing away from the stroke. But can I tell you something I learned in our small group study a few weeks ago?”
“Craig Groeschel, our pastor and the man that wrote the book I told you about, Hope in the Dark, he posted something on Instagram the other day that said ‘Peace isn’t found in the absence of a storm. Peace is found in the presence of God.
“And isn’t that what Christmastime is all about, God coming near? Don’t let go of your faith, dad, don’t let go of God. He’s not going to let go of you or of us as this storm blows.”
A moment later, a sudden shrill honk cut through the gathering blow and the two hunters looked up to see a goose — an eagle headed blue goose at that — setting his wings, stretching his feet, and reaching for the decoys.
On Jake’s shot, the big color-phase snow goose slumped, crashed into the water, and lay in stillness as Charlie swam out, retrieved the sizable waterfowl, and brought it back in.
As Jake took the goose, a flash of silver lit up the blind.
“Scott, would you look at that,” said Jake with a grin. “It’s a banded goose! A couple of days before Christmas.”
Then an even bigger surprise happened.
“Well I’ll be, son — it’s actually got a Jack Miner band on its leg,” said Jake.
Scott had heard stories about Miner bands before, the shiny silver aluminum ovals put forth from the Jack Miner Foundation in Kingsville, Ontario. What makes these bands unique is the fact that ever since the practice began nearly a century ago, they have carried a Bible verse intended to encourage hunters who might recover them.
“Dad, what verse does it have on it? queried Scott.
Choking back tears, Jake answered quietly: “Have faith in God, Mark 11:22.”
As moisture slid down both men’s cheeks, neither said a word for quite some time.
Then Jake broke the silence.
“Well, the birds have stopped flying,” he said. “That’s a shame, we were only one bird away from a two-man limit. Come on son, let’s pick the decoys up and get the Christmas festivities started. It’s high time I quit feeling sorry for myself, embrace this challenge, and do exactly what that verse says — have faith in God.”
“Sounds good to me dad,” said Scott with a faint smile. “But if you don’t mind, let’s stick it out just a little while longer. Because you just never know what might happen.”